What do we know of the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program?
Though it is much in the news of late, what we read and hear generates much noise, but sheds little light. We glean that it is so secret and vital to our minute-to-minute survival that everyone with knowledge of its details has already been killed. We know it gives Dick Cheney a woody. (Can that be good?) We know that it is favored by the clear-eyed and crew cut patriots at Denny’s restaurants across the country, for unlike those effete eastern homosexuals and dope smokers, they have nothing to hide. And we know that the democrats, in a display of the infinite cowardice for which they are justly renowned, have just pumped it full of amphetamines, soaked it in gasoline, and given it the keys to the hummer, much liked a stunned football player staggering triumphantly towards his own end zone, elated by the roar of the crowd, unable to hear the words they scream:
“You’re running the wrong way!”
We know these things, but none of them is one of the two things that are the only two things you need to know about this program.
In a moment, I will reveal these two things to you. But first, I am going to tell you exactly what this top secret program does. The personal consequences of this treasonous disclosure will be dire. In the aftermath, I will be granted the highest level of security clearance so that I may then be ceremoniously stripped of it. I will be extraordinarily rendered; I have already charged my iPod and packed my comfy neck pillow for the flight. And I will be tortured: I will have to watch Karl Rove dance, to read the complete works of Bill Kristol, to follow the briar-choked, corpse-strewn track of Tony Snow’s logic.
National security, you best put on something sheer and lacy, ’cause you’re about to get compromised.
The surveillance program in question involves intercepting and recording telephone conversations, and likely email as well. Supposedly, only communications in which one participant is outside the United States will be targeted. But the physical telecommunications infrastructure doesn’t always support such a surgical partitioning of the internal and the external, so it would be naive to think that no purely domestic communications will get swept up in the mix. The collected information will then be subjected to analysis by an array of automated processes that will look for suspicious key words and patterns, in hopes that a few potential needles can be extracted from this astronomically big haystack and brought to the attention of the finest analytical tool at our nation’s disposal.
Which is a guy named Alan who drinks 17 cups of coffee a day, has an enlarged prostate gland, and has been sitting at the same desk in Langley, VA for the last 20 years.
Alan will then decide whether the potential suspects identified by the system warrant further investigation.
If this sounds a little bit backwards to you–to first record phone calls and then decide whether the people on the phone deserve to be targeted–you’re right. And thus all the whining from those fixated on quaint notions like “liberty” and “the law.”
Historically, agents of law enforcement have to first establish that there is reason to suspect that person X is a criminal, and then they can get a warrant to spy. Whether the changes to technology and to the security threats we face over the last few decades justify this new approach is a legitimate subject for debate. But there can be no doubt that it is a sea change.
Shall we now examine the issues manifest in our technological advances? Shall we take measure of our altered security outlook and probe the myriad scenarios of dirty bombs and poisoned water supplies? Let’s not. For that would be dull for you, dear reader. Far worse, it would be taxing for me, and that is something to be avoided at all costs.
Thankfully, such exertions are unnecessary. For as I said earlier, there are only two things you need to know about our new, steroid-enhanced government surveillance program.
First, when you balance the effectiveness of the program against the costs both monetary and inherent in the erosion of our privacy, it turns out that it isn’t very effective. Most experts concede, and past experience has shown, that if we took the bazillions of dollars that are spent to collect and analyze all this data and spent it instead on agents like Alan so they can infiltrate extremist networks, establish informants, and do the kind of targeted, legal (warrants and everything!) surveillance that has borne so much fruit in the past, we’d catch far more bad guys.
Alan would probably appreciate the opportunity to get out of the office. Certainly, he could use the exercise.
In other words, this isn’t a choice between security and privacy, it’s a plan to make sure we get neither. File it under “S” for “Sucky Plans We Shouldn’t Do.”
On to the second thing you must know about the surveillance program: it is overseen by the people in charge of executing it. Will the ability to invade our privacy therefore be abused for political ends?
Oh, that the lord would send me an all-powerful font face of fire in which to type these words…
Yes. It will.
It is the most mortal of locks.
Tell me, what is the central foundation of our system of government? No, not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. No, not the right to get filthy rich and then consider yourself better than everyone else. (But good answer. Half credit awarded.) No, the central truth which has made this nation successful is this: People are awful, and you should never, ever, ever trust them. Tyranny follows unchecked power as surely as the drain clogs when you give yourself a haircut over the sink.
I heard an analyst argue that this program does not represent a threat, because the decent, dedicated career civil servants at our intelligence agencies would never use it in an untoward manner.
Please. No argument could be better contrived to make the founding fathers howl with laughter.
I’m not saying that the power now granted will be used to determine what toppings Barack Obama likes on his pizza or to capture and later capitalize upon the involuntary exclamations of Hillary Clinton in the throes of passion–though, given our present administration’s dubious track record, you could perhaps be forgiven for acknowledging that possibility. I’m not even suggesting that an all-hands conference call between Osama Bin Laden and the heads of his international network might be overlooked because the last bits of computer disc space were filled with an account of the late night goings-on at the U. of Iowa girls’ dorm. But will the government claim successes that can never be confirmed as a basis for further expanding this program and others like it, until all of your daily communications and utterances become tools to be used on a whim by the public servants-cum-gangsters in the white house, and by the public servants that will follow but become gangsters themselves via the influence of that same corrupting power? A temptation even more compelling than cookies?
I say again, in a mighty font: You betcha.
So do not be confused, dear friends. Do not let debaters on all sides of this issue cloud your thinking by dragging you down into the details of implementation, or with scholarly disquisitions on the niceties of interpreted law regarding privacy rights. Even the most familiar objects of daily life are unrecognizable when examined under a microscope, and once manipulated into debating the fine points of a topic we’ll wake to find that we implicitly conceded the proposition as a whole.
Ask yourself, should you be heeding those distant but urgent alarm bells ringing faintly in your head?
I’m only saying.